ST. LOUIS — As videos, images and discussions about violence play out in real time across TV, radio, the internet and social media, children are also watching and listening and need help making sense of it all.
Like with any kind of trauma or grief, there are never any perfect words, said Dorothy Haskell, project director for Children's Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. But saying something is important so that your children know they can talk to you about it.
Children’s Advocacy Services conducts forensic interviews with children and families impacted by trauma. In a typical year, about 10% of these interviews are with children who witness crime. So far this year, the percentage is about 30%.
The agency works with many children who have chronic exposure to violence in their communities and they see a wide range of responses.
“Many children can manage themselves,” Haskell said. “But others may struggle with anxiety, depression, have sleeping difficulties, or use unhelpful coping behaviors like acting out, being overly perfect, or even self-harm as attempts to navigate our challenging world.”
Haskell said it’s important to invite a conversation as close as possible to when your child hears about violence.
"But it’s never too late to be curious about your child’s thoughts, feelings, or experiences of the world,” she added. “Being honest about how you make sense of what’s happening could be a good starting point.”
She offers this suggestion for beginning a conversation:
There seem to be a lot of stories about people hurting or killing each other in the news right now. I have a ton of feelings about it—sometimes I am sad, sometimes I’m scared, and sometimes I’m angry that people hurt other people. Life is complicated and I don’t fully understand why it’s happening. I wish I could make the world safe for everyone, but I can’t. I do want you to know that you are loved, and I will do everything I can to keep you safe. I also want you to know that you can talk to me about any feelings you have when you see this stuff, too. How are you feeling?
Parents should limit young children’s exposure to media coverage, as much as possible, Haskell said. But after watching an initial report, parents could say something like:
One person used a gun, but then six people came to the crime scene, over 100 people worked in the hospital, and huge numbers of people could offer kind words to the family.
Then follow up with:
What do you think we could do to help make the world a little better for this family or for our city? Or ‘Who are people that would help us if something scary happened?’
Helping kids think about the helpers and the safe people/spaces in their lives can be beneficial.
Modeling effective coping
Haskell and her colleagues work with families who have a variety of reactions to the violence in their communities.
“We have had parents concerned that their parental anxiety was stressing their kids out, parents trying to move neighborhoods and move schools to reduce violence exposure, parents being scared a phone call will mean bad news, and parents trying to limit time the family spends outside or a child’s time with their friends, which poses challenges of its own.”
Modeling effective coping is important, and probably the biggest key to helping kids cope, Haskell added. Parents can do this by acknowledging their own feelings honestly then articulating what they are doing to manage, which could sound like:
I’m really scared right now, but I am going to take some deep breaths to calm down right now. I’m also going to think about the helpers and what I am grateful for. Then, I’m going to exercise to help my body get rid of some stress.
Any positive coping tool that is helpful for adults is helpful for kids. Anything that can be done together is a gift too. For example, parents could ask kids to pray together, if it’s aligned with a family’s spiritual beliefs:
I am going to pray for the family now, do you want to pray with me? I am going to send a thank-you note to someone who helped the family, do you want to do that, too?
Avoid making assumptions
When a child does not outwardly seem stressed, parents or adults should not assume they are struggling. We all respond to traumatic events in different ways. Haskell recommended checking in by saying:
“You don’t seem too stressed by this on the outside. Are you having any feelings about it that I just can’t see yet?”
If the child says no, you can use it as a chance to normalize big feelings and remind them that you are there to support them:
“I’m glad the stress of things like this in our world feels manageable right now. If the hard stuff in the news ever does bother you, know that you’re totally normal—bad stuff happens in the world and all kinds of reactions to that make sense. You can talk to me about any feeling, any time.”
Haskell cautions parents to be ready for their child’s thoughts to come when you least expect to hear them, because communication with anyone is always full of surprises.
Getting professional help
It’s also important to recognize that the thoughts I am sharing are very general, Haskell explained.
“If a family knows someone directly affected by violence or lives nearby or frequently visits the area where violence occurred, or experienced something similar, more support for that family may be needed.”
Professional help can always be an option to consider.
St. Louis Children’s Hospital offers a Victims of Violence Program where professionals work directly with children and their families after a child themselves is treated in their emergency department for violent injuries.
Rinada Bailey, a social worker for the program, said the children she works with have been shot, stabbed, assaulted, bullied, or trafficked. She recalls a child she works with who was shot in his own neighborhood.
“He didn’t want to be outside anymore, and he didn’t want his siblings to go play in the park anymore and he became very protective and worried that this will happen to somebody else when they are outside,” Bailey said. “His mother said that was very different from the adventurous kid he used to be.”
Bailey’s work with him and other children involves equipping children with the tools they need to recognize when their environment is becoming unsafe. Sometimes going to the specific places where children would normally play helps to re-establish safety.
“For the child who was shot, we talk about some things to look for at the park near his home like large groups of people beginning to get loud, and what it would look like if they begin fighting, or if he saw someone displaying a weapon. These things would cue him that there's a possibility that something could happen.”
Staying safe is about being aware of those scenes so he can remove himself from unsafe situations, and knowing who he needs to contact, like a parent or a guardian, to make sure someone knows where he is all of the time, she explained.
Haskell and Bailey look forward to a time when they won’t need to offer the services they do, but until then they are grateful to be there for the kids and families who need their support.
Jackie Barnes, Ph.D., LCSW, is a freelance health writer, medical family therapist, consultant and professor. When she’s not practicing and promoting holistic health, she’s working on one of her many creative projects.
- The Children's Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis! (CASGSL) offers a range of services for families, including a trauma-informed parenting group and short-term interventions immediately following trauma exposure. Their intake phone number is (314) 516-7330.
- St. Louis Children’s Hospital’s Victim of Violence Program
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) put out a great tip sheet related to talking to children about mass violence in 2014, and it is still pertinent today.
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network